by Bryan Anthony C. Paraiso
      National hero Jose Rizal was eager to leave his tedious studies in Madrid for the sophisticated charms of Paris in 1883: “I’m already getting so bored of Madrid that if I succeed to graduate this year, I’ll go to Paris or Rome, perhaps never to return to Spain …”
      His parents did not encourage his wanderlust. And his brother Paciano told him to stay put: “In the majority of [your letters] you tell us of your desire to go to Paris, asking permission and funds for it from our parents, who, however, are silent on the matter … [which] I interpret as refusal … As for me, I think that you can go there after you have finished your medical course, for once having taken the first step, one ought not to go back for flimsy reasons.”
       Rizal must have been driven to sulk by this admonition. What would he do in Madrid during the sweltering summer months?
       But he went ahead with his plan, notifying his family on June 23, 1883, that he had been staying in Hotel de Paris at 37 Rue de Maubeuge since the morning of the 17th, a Sunday.
     “We passed through Bordeaux, Poitiers, Tours, Blois and Orleans until Paris … The environs of Paris are very beautiful and very picturesque. There are little houses with gardens and the churches … of Gothic style … form and constitute the enchantment of the traveler,” he wrote. 
       As a first-timer to the French capital, Rizal felt ill at ease that the residents were courteous and amiable, taking off their hats or asking his pardon if they accidentally brushed against him.
       “Now that I’m in Paris … I consider myself almost rude,” he wrote.
        Ever frugal, he stayed at a hotel that charged P7 a month without board or light.
       Rizal was privileged to visit Paris during the Belle Époque. He enjoyed the sights and sounds of a city that was extensively renovated by Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the 1860s, with tree-lined boulevards marked by outdoor cafés, wide avenues that improved traffic flow, public parks and gardens, clean shops and marketplaces, and train stations.
       Important architectural and urban planning movements were motivated by Haussmann’s vision for Paris, such as the City Beautiful Movement championed by American architect Daniel Burnham. (Burnham created the urban plans for Manila in 1905 and Chicago in the United States in 1909 following Haussmann’s idiom.)
        Rizal glowingly reported: “I went out for a stroll … and [with] the little I covered, I can imagine how big this city is that they call ‘Babylon.’ Fill with magnificent houses the entire area of Calamba, Cabuyao and Santa Rosa [in Laguna] and you’ll have Paris more or less…”
       “[T]o traverse it in a coach from one end to the other takes more than an hour and a half. Here man is a real ant; there are streets whose ends cannot be seen and nevertheless they are straight, wide and very well laid out … Passersby animate and throng the streets, the restaurants, cafés, bouillons (cheap restaurants), beer halls, parks and monuments.”
        Rizal walked to famous landmarks and monuments such as the wide parks of the Champs Elysées, the Vendôme Column, the ornate Paris Opera House, Place de la Concorde and the Luxor obelisk, and the stately Church of the Madeleine.
         He wrote that ordinary Parisians ate at bouillons, especially the one owned by the butcher Duval, which he described as “neat and clean, and one can eat in them quite well for two-and-a-half pesetas.”
        In the evening he went to the theater—a “most sumptuous public edifice … of Indian architecture, fantastically grandiose, full of mirrors and illuminated with electric light, decorated with gigantic statues…”
        He wrote of “huge mirrors, conveniently placed, prolong the series of columns so that one imagines himself inside a very extensive temple in Ellora or Mahabalipur,” as well as “the troupe of dancers performing … allegorical dances like the ‘Excelsior’ in which is shown the victory of Progress over the evil genius.”
         He checked out the first-class medical facilities of the Laennec Hospital as well as Le Bon Marché (The Good Market), regarded as the world’s first department store. He described it as among “the four or five very big department stores (the others being La Louvre, Le Printemps, La Belle Jardiniére)” in which were sold “all kinds of articles except food.”
        “It occupies an entire block with all the floors of the buildings as large as the space between our houses and the telegraph office,” he wrote. (Le Bon Marché served as an inspiration for Emile Zola’s “Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise),” a tragicomic novel about the life of a salesgirl in a 19th-century department store.)
         Rizal enjoyed his sojourn in Paris, although he complained that sightseeing was not cheap because “one has to pay for transportation, tickets and tips.” But he would visit Paris four more times.
         It is interesting to note that our hero chose to stay at the Latin Quarter in the Rive Gauche, home of bohemian intellectuals, artists and poets. Could he have wandered into the cafés and cabarets of Montparnasse, and met the struggling Impressionist painters and Symbolist poets?